Boring phonological rule practice

Monkeys rule

Monkey Grammarian is on legal strike at the moment. Deprived of my normal opportunities to torture students, I’ve decided to decided to release this set of practice exercises on applying phonological rules into the wilds of cyberspace, where anybody interested in practicing their low-level skills in phonological notation can use it. (Of course, if you’re one of my temporarily former students trying to use these exercises, I have no way of knowing that, but shame on you. You know I’m not allowed to anything to help you learn phonology until the university administration comes to its senses. Turn around now. Go. Git. Skedaddle. This is your last warning.)

Posted in Linguistics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Homework assignment for formal semanticists

Lambda monkey I came across the following quote from Sylvia Plath on Passive Guy’s blog:

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.

I thought, “That’s me!” While toying with the idea of copy-pasting this into my collection of quotes I might want to use one day, I read it again, and the part of my brain that has been thinking far too much about formal semantics this month said, “Hey, wait a minute.”

Which leads us to Dr. Monkey’s first homework assignment for formal semanticists….

Explain how the phrase one mutually exclusive thing gets interpreted.

You may use any plausible assumptions you like. You may use any system of logic you like whose name isn’t an oxymoron (quantum logic is fine; intuitionist logic, borderline; business logic, not on your life). You may use any kind of quantifiers you like (generalized, branching, non-branching, loop-de-loop).

Bonus marks for not using any Greek letters except, in an emergency, lambda. Bonus marks for legitimately using all of the Unicode symbols for the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, and speak-no-evil monkeys, illustrated above (offer not available to any analysis framed in Optimality Theory, or to Maria Bittner).

Any answers that deny that this needs an analysis (because it’s performance not competence, periphery not core, E-language not I-language, or any similar excuse) will be referred to the authorities for academic dishonesty.

Hurry. Every day I don’t see a good explanation causes me milliseconds and milliseconds of emotional angst.

Posted in Linguistics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Silliest Legalese Award, nominee #1

Lawyer

We’ve all become used to warning stickers like “Do not try to insert fishhook into your eyeball” or owner’s manuals for cars chock-full of helpful tips like “Do not allow children to play on roof of vehicle while vehicle is in motion” or “Do not attempt to jump-start the battery while you are soaking in a bathtub.” And you know every one of those tips resulted from some moron somewhere doing just that then suing the manufacturer for not warning them against it.

But can’t we assume that readers of scientific journals and textbooks are smart enough not to do bone-headed things? Well, okay, obviously not. But can’t we assume that any trial judge would assume we’re smart enough, and that any bone-headed thing we do is our own fault and not the fault of a lawyer who forgot to warn us off in six-point type?

I just saw a copy of John K. Kruschke’s Doing Bayesian Analysis: A Tutorial with R and BUGS, published by Academic Press, now part of the digestive system of the Elsevier leviathan. Looks like a great book, but enough about that. Today’s rant is about two paragraphs I happened to notice on the book’s copyright page.

Knowledge and best practice in this field are constantly changing. As new research and experience broaden our understanding, changes in research methods, professional practices, or medical treatment may become necessary.

95% of people reading any Elsevier publication don’t need to be told this — they’ve devoted their careers to making it a reality. The other 5%, the deadwood dinosaurs who think they learned everything they’ll ever need when they went to school in 1870, are not going to be cured by a sentence on a copyright page.

Practitioners and researchers must always rely on their own experience and knowledge in evaluating and using any information, methods, compounds, or experiments described herein. In using such information or methods they should be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others, including parties for whom they have a professional responsibility.

Oh, thanks for reminding me. And here I was about to be mindful of the safety of everyone except those I have a professional responsibility for. And it’s a damned good thing you imposed that legal obligation on me on your copyright page, since not a single legislature anywhere in the world has ever thought of making rules about professional responsibility.

Okay, this clod of legalese is clearly aimed at covering Elesevier’s butt from physicians: “If you try to repeat something reported in one of our medical journals and your patient dies, it’s your own fault, so don’t sue us.” And that could actually be a useful warning label for Elsevier publications — while they have published some earth-shattering scientific breakthroughs that redefine the way we conceive of humanity’s place in the universe (like doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2007.10.003., for example), they’ve also been known to take money from pharmaceutical companies to print out shameless drug marketing campaigns masquerading as peer-reviewed journals. So they probably should have a blinking neon “Caveat lector” sticker on every front cover.

But this is a statistics textbook, for crying out loud! I should be mindful of my own safety while learning statistics? Is it more dangerous than I thought it was? Does thinking too hard about conjugate priors lead to brain aneurysms, cardiovascular disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, demonic possession? Does it lead to those things more often than reading legalese does?[1]

Anyways, here’s some free advice for scientific publishers who insist on lawyering up: At least hire lawyers who passed junior-high science. Otherwise they’ll leave gaping loopholes like the one you just left here: you’re so busy disclaiming any responsibility for my use of compounds that you forget to mention elements. Ha, Elsevier legal department! Ha! If any of my patients die after I inject them with arsenic or plutonium, we’re coming after you!


  1. : Granted, the book probably has somewhere the obligatory illustration of Bayes’ Rule about the fictitious blood-test for a fictitious disease, where if the disease’s incidence in the population is low enough and the test’s false-positive rate is high enough, even getting a positive test still means you probably don’t have the disease. But where in the world are the physicians stupid enough to think, “Despite everything I’ve every heard from my med school profs and my malpractice insurers, I vaguely remember something from my statistics class saying I could ignore all positive tests,” then try to sue the textbook publisher when their patients start dying?
Posted in Rant | Tagged | Leave a comment

Squirrels are evil (Las ardillas son malas, guey)

Cable chewed through by squirrelsIn the period of two days, I’ve had three unrelated brushes with the concept of squirrel. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Or maybe it’s a sinister reminder that we’re sharing our planet with the genetically engineered hybrid offspring of lab rats and demons.

First encounter: Watching Whitney on TV one evening (don’t ask). A squirrel runs through an open window into the characters’ apartment. Whitney’s boyfriend freaks out, justifying his reaction with the observation: “Squirrels are just sexy rats. Everybody knows that.” To which I could only say “Amen!”

Just so we’re clear: We’re not talking cute little cartoon squirrels that sit chirping on some Disney princess’s shoulders while she goes tripping la-la-la through the forest. We’re talking about real-world squirrels here. Squirrels who have no fear. Squirrels they wrote the RICO act for. Squirrels who climb up your pant leg while you’re sitting on a park bench, sit on your lap, and stare at you with their beady little rodent eyes and frothing mouths, telepathically communicating to you, “Hand over that sandwich right now, buster, or you’ll be getting several weeks of painful rabies injections.”

Second encounter: Reading Minister Faust’s hilarious parody, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. A dysfunctional team of superheroes gets sent against their will into therapy with psychobabbling celebrity shrink, Eva Brain-Silverman. The Batman character is the Flying Squirrel, alter-ego of far-right-wing billionaire Festus Piltdown III, whose choice of hero identity was inspired one day when a flying squirrel crashed into the window of one of his mansions. As former sidekick Chip Monk explains:

“that, apparently, is when the light goes on over young F.P.’s noggin regarding the power of the flying squirrel to instill terror in the reptilian brain, the ‘dominant portion,’ he said, of ‘your typical urban phrenological reprobate.’[1]

“And he also told me, as I recall, that he identified with squirrels because they’re ‘so productive … they collect nuts and store them while lazy animals freeze to death, as befits their miserable existences.’

“Somehow he never bothered to notice the obvious: that the trees are the ones making the nuts and all the squirrel does is take them. Parasitic, not productive. Like his family.”

Again, amen.

Third encounter: My cable service was getting flakier and flakier. It began sometime over Christmas, when high channels started going out. I had hit the wrong button on my PVR when trying to record a single episode of a series on TLÑ, a channel in the 500s, and accidentally set it to record every episode. I arrived back home after Christmas to find dozens of unwatchable episodes — unwatchable both because of the inherent quality of the series and because bad signal levels had turned them into slide shows of Kandinsky paintings accompanied by a Morse code soundtrack. No great loss, since the show is, objectively speaking, the most abysmally awful television series of all time.[2]

I shrugged and gave up on TLÑ for a couple of months. But then the Kandinsky paintings started working their way down into channels in the 200s. Time to set aside a couple of hours for a phone call to the cable company.

One cable guy came out a few weeks ago and drilled a signal booster onto my basement wall. My fusebox now looks like it’s being attacked by a colony of squid. Turns out he shouldn’t have plugged the phone into the signal booster. A few weeks later, my phone died, my internet died at the same time, though I could still get the most awful series of all time absolutely perfectly on my TV screen.

Another cable guy comes out, actually bothers to go outside to see why the signal’s so weak in the first place. Opening the junction box that serves a cluster of homes in my neighbourhood, he discovers it’s been taken over by a family of squirrels. Specifically a family of malnourished squirrels who have reduced the cable to my house to the photo above.

Let’s review. In order to get to that copper core of my cable, the squirrels had to eat their way through several inches of:

  • a layer of rubber insulation.
  • a layer of braided copper insulation, like steel wool or a metal kitchen scouring pad, but woven into a sturdy fabric armour.
  • a layer of foil.
  • another layer of insulation. Not sure exactly what this one is — looks like some kind of solidified plasticky foam.

Seriously, what terrestrial mammal gets its essential nutrients from rubber, metal, and plastic?

There’s one obvious conclusion:  Squirrels are not of this earth.  Not only are they evil, they’re an advance scouting party for an imminent alien invasion.

Either that or they were trying to illegally tap into my cable signal so that they could watch the worst TV series of all time for free, which in my books is just as scary.


  1.   
    Or phonological reprobates. Phrenology and phonology are, after all, practically sister sciences.
     
  2.    I speak, of course, of the Colombian telenovela Sin senos no hay paraíso.

    Since you’ve all been so patient with me, I’ll turn this footnote into a whole bonus post on the comparative merits of Latin American soap operas!

    The main character of Sin senos no hay paraíso (Without breasts, there is no paradise) is a poor girl trying to claw her way out of poverty. (I’m taking the word of my cable company’s program guide that she’s poor. The kitchen alone in her family home is bigger than most apartments I’ve lived in. Their living room seems bigger than my entire house. This is apparently what counts as poverty in Colombia.)

    For some reason, our not-noticeably-flat-chested heroine is convinced that her breasts are too small and this is keeping her from success in her chosen profession, which involves sleeping with drug lords in exchange for large amounts of money. So she devotes all her energies to trying to get a boob job. (Or, I don’t know, maybe she thinks her alleged flat-chestedness is holding her back from her dream of being a podiatrist, and prostitution is just a way of getting enough money for a cure. Having only seen two episodes, I’m kind of hazy on the whole back-story.)

    Other characters include:

    • the middle-management drug lord our heroine is sleeping with and trying to manipulate. This actor has exactly one facial expression — tilting his head backward and twitching one corner of his mouth like he just smelled raw sewage — which he uses for every conceivable situation. “Take this scum out of town and kill him (sneer).” “You’d better not be lying to me about your ex-boyfriend, Heroine (sneer).” “This ice cream tastes great (sneer).” “I love you, Mama (sneer).” This emotional range makes him one of the most talented and nuanced actors working on the series.
    • Various henchmen of the drug lord — Heroine is scheming to trick them into killing each other off, for reasons I can’t figure out and honestly don’t care about.
    • Heroine’s ex-boyfriend, who is dumb as a post (well, so is every character) but is such a sensitive guy that he can see past Heroine’s superficial flaws (like her hideously flat chest), through her deeper flaws (like the cesspit that is her soul), and into something or other that makes him eternally devoted to her. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from spending every waking moment hanging out with Heroine’s mother, downing gallons of alcohol with her, and making passes at her.
    • Heroine’s brother, who is sanctimoniously judgmental about his sister’s virtue, all the while oblivious to the fact that his own girlfriend and all the babes she hangs out with are Heroine’s co-workers, since he’s swallowed their cover story. (Not to question your grasp of basic economics, but really dude, how many full-time “lingerie models” do you honestly believe one city needs?)
    • Heroine’s BFF and the boss of her escort agency. I’m not sure exactly why she’s here, except maybe as the token sympathetic character — and by “sympathetic” I mean she’s the only character who hasn’t done anything (at least in the two episodes I watched) to suggest she has hard vacuum where most people keep their conscience and their common sense, mostly because she hasn’t done anything at all. (Which, in this soap opera, probably means she’s secretly plotting to butcher her employees and sell their organs to Byelorussia.)

    But it’s not relentlessly bleak. At least the series has morally uplifting messages about the value of education.  Like this one…

    While lying together in bed, sneering Middle-Management Drug Lord promises Heroine enough money to both pay for her surgery and bribe her mother to quit nagging. This makes Heroine deliriously happy and lovey-dovey. Drug Lord phones Henchman #1 and orders him to bring five million pesos in cash. Henchman #1 arrives, apologizes for being all out of pesos, and hands over 2500 US dollars instead. Heroine breaks into tears because there’s so little money — how can she possibly pay for a boob job with so little money? Drug Lord spends minutes (minutes of screen time!) trying to explain the subtleties of foreign currency exchange to Heroine, who keeps repeating, “I’m so confused! I don’t get it!” Drug Lord says, “You just have to multiply the American dollars by two thousand to get the pesos.” Heroine panics. “Multiply by two thousand? I can’t even multiply by two!”

    Dissolve to a flashback:  Child Heroine, Child Brother, and Mother are sitting at the table in their humungous poverty-stricken kitchen. Heroine and Brother announce that, no matter what Mother thinks, they’re going to drop out of school. “Yeah, you don’t learn anything useful there.”  (The actors are exactly the same — badly shaven Brother, still-not-noticeably-flat-chested Heroine. But I assume this a flashback to our heroes as young children, because I assume that the Colombian education system, like ours, teaches its pupils to multiply by two sometime before they reach their mid-twenties. I may be wrong.)

    Back in the present: Drug Lord finally shuts up Heroine’s whining and sends her off with Henchman #1/Chauffeur for a shopping spree montage. As Henchman drops Heroine and her dozens of shopping bags off at her family’s impoverished suburban mansion, he tries to give her Drug Lord’s phone number for her newly-purchased cell phone. Heroine pokes frantically at the phone. “But it’s not working! Why isn’t it working?” With the patience of Job, Henchman #1 explains that she needs to charge it — “Just read the instructions.” Heroine’s eyes widen in panic. “Read?”

    Dissolve to the same flashback. “You don’t learn anything useful at school!” (Why pay more writers when you can keep recycling the same flashback over and over?)

    How can you make a more compelling case for education than that?

    I think I promised above a post on the comparative virtues of Latin American soaps. Since I’m too lazy to scroll up and delete that promise, I guess I’d better compare Sin senos to some other show. The obvious choice is Mexico’s Las Aparicio, which meets the most rigorous selection criteria for appropriateness as a standard of comparison — namely, it’s the only other telenovela I’ve ever seen.

    Despite spending each episode wandering around in various states of semi-dress, every female character of Sin senos all lumped together would be hard pressed to ooze a fraction of the sexiness of any single character from Las Aparicio, and that includes the grandmother and the cook. Las Aparicio deserves its fair share of sarcasm, for which I’ll merely refer you to the admirable recaps of Nat, which are umpteen times more enjoyable than the episodes themselves. But Las Aparicio could teach Sin senos a thing or two — like if your entire series is based on mixing completely unbelievable story lines with lame preachiness, you might as well go whole hog. Don’t hold back. Slam that pedal to the metal and send your production van hurtling over the side of the cliff in search of glory. At least your viewers have more fun.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Collins’ new Spanish dictionary for Macs — blech!

The past few months have seen way too little blogging (i.e., none) and way too much work on the Guaraní field methods course.

But I’ve been roused from my recent non-bloggishness by the overwhelming need to discuss the “Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged” app that I recently bought from the Apple AppStore.

It is — how can I phrase this delicately? — the single most unprofessional and incompetently designed piece of alleged dictionary software that I’ve had the misfortune to use in the last decade. (And believe me, there’s some stiff competition for that title.)

I have two arguments in my defence against the charge that I’m a total rube.

First is that the AppStore will only show its Canadian customers reviews that have been written by other Canadian customers — in this case, there were none. I never saw the U.S. AppStore’s slew of overwhelmingly hostile reviews (blaring like the warning beacon at the beginning of Alien) until it was too late.

My second defence is that I’ve actually had, until now, consistently positive experiences with dictionary software bearing the Collins name, including for Spanish, including other apps for the content of this exact same Spanish dictionary.

On my iPad, I’ve been using Cole Zhu’s app, which has the contents the complete unabridged Collins Spanish-English dictionary. It’s as fast and convenient as you can expect an iPad app to be, but still nowhere near as convenient as typing words on a real keyboard — which I would like to have for those occasions where I’m sitting with a real keyboard.

On my Mac laptop, I’ve been using a 2006-vintage dictionary program that looks like this:

Ultralingua1

This piece of software has mysteriously vanished from the Collins website since I bought it for something like $15 last year. It’s the same handy-dandy dictionary that I mentioned in this post as aiding and abetting my delusional attempt to read Roberto Bolaño. It’s got a couple of annoying glitches, and it only has the contents from the Concise Collins Spanish-English dictionary, rather than the unabridged behemoth. But when I said it allowed me to look up a Spanish word in approximately 0.3 seconds, I wasn’t exaggerating much.

I’ve also played around with a dictionary program that works only under Windows (boo!) that has the contents of Collins’ unabridged dictionary — a licence for it came for free with the paper version I bought. It too was pretty usable with a nice enough interface. But it wasn’t a huge improvement over the concise handy-dandy Mac program, at least not a huge enough improvement to bother firing up my Windows virtual machine and waiting a minute before I could even type a word in, so I got out of the habit of using it.[1]

The licence for the handy-dandy Mac program was always vague (read “completely silent”) on the question of how many of my computers (home desktop, office desktop, laptop) I was allowed to install it on. I’ve put it on two now without eliciting complaints, but never got around to trying the third.

But then I stumbled across this shiny new AppStore app — with the content of the unabridged paper dictionary (like the iPad app and the Windows program) and, I assumed, at least the usability of the Windows program and the handy-dandy 2006 Mac program (and hopefully half a decade of improvements) and guaranteed to work on every Mac I own now or may own in the future — all for less that I spent on the paper dictionary. Seemed like a no-brainer. How could it possibly go wrong?

Oh, let me count the ways.

Style — or lack thereof

There’s always been a strong tendency among Mac developers to favour vacuous style over actual usefulness. I’m used to that. I almost expect it. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the successor to several highly usable Collins programs would trade in already existing usability for vacuous style, and then not even manage to be stylish.

The app isn’t actively leap-off-the-screen ugly — that’s the best I can say for it. It’s definitely trying to be more stylish than the workmanlike handy-dandy 2006 program. But honestly, it looks like it was put together by a committee endowed with one-tenth the aesthetic sense of an autistic actuary. This is what they thought was way more important than being able to look up words easily:

Newcollins1

The colour scheme doesn’t guide your attention in any useful way. The green icons inside the entries are unreadable and uninterpretable, and they don’t even link to explanations of what they mean. (Really, guys, this is 2012. There’s these newfangled things called hyperlinks that we invented, oh, somewhere around the time you were born. Check them out some day.)

One last nit to pick here. It’s nothing that renders the app unusable (unlike the points below), but something that points to the overall stylelessness/cluelessness of the developers. Most Mac applications have short catchy names, like “Safari” or “BBEdit” or (for me at this very moment) “MarsEdit” or the name of the handy-dandy 2006 program: “Collins”. Occasionally there’s a self-important company that allows themselves to get long-winded, like with “Google Chrome”. The name of this app, in the menu bar and in the tooltip that hovers over the dock, is “Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged”. By the time it’s printed all that in my menu bar (along with its handful of purely ornamental menu items), there’s barely enough room left over for the clock.

Interactivity — such as it is

In the screenshot, you can also see the app’s font size. Yes, the only font size you can get. There’s a Format menu that claims to have commands for increasing or decreasing the font size. Sometimes those commands are greyed out. Sometimes they’re not. Doesn’t matter. They do absolutely nothing. You can, if you’re lucky, succeed in changing the entire font of the dictionary entries, and the dialogue box for that acts like it’ll also let you choose the point size. Don’t get your hopes up. It’s lying to you.[2] Whether a program lets the user change its font size is one of the easiest ways of telling whether it was made by people with the slightest clue about designing usable user interfaces. This one fails.

That’s also the width of the app that you see in the screenshot. You can make it wider if you want, even fill the whole screen, but it absolutely refuses to get narrower than that. So there’s no way you can slim it down to the size you see in the above screenshot of the handy-dandy 2006 program and let it sit comfortably beside, say, your browser — ready to be used when necessary and ignored when not necessary. No, this app arrogantly assumes that it deserves your entire attention while you’re interacting with it — one more sign that it was designed by people who have no clue about what people need to use dictionary programs for.

My number-one criterion for the usability of a dictionary program is whether I can go from a desire to know about a word to reading its entry without taking my fingers off the keyboard. Every (non-iPad) dictionary program I’ve bought since about 2004 lets me do that. Unsurprisingly (by now), this one fails.

If I type “largo” into handy-dandy 2006 program and hit Return, it instantly shows me the definitions for largo (the adjective, the noun, the adverb), then also for the verb largar, ’cause maybe I’m looking for the “I” form of that one.

If I type “largo” into the new app, I get a list of every headword that has those five letters in that order:

Newcollins2

Now if I want to see the entry for largo that’s sitting there at the top of the list, I have to waste a couple of extra seconds and fumble for my mouse or the trackpad, move the cursor to that list item, and click on it — since apparently my merely typing the word doesn’t make it obvious enough which word I want. Another fail by someone who’s apparently never bothered to use a dictionary program themselves before attempting to design one.

And notice: no verb largar anywhere in that list. Every one of the earlier Collins programs I used could handle all those wacky Spanish verb suffixes and immediately send you to the right entry filed under the infinitive form. This one doesn’t even try. I think it’s obvious that this “feature” comes from sheer laziness on the part of the developers. (Or, being as charitable as I can manage, perhaps the absence of anyone on the development team who, you know, actually spoke Spanish? Or knew anything about it?) The developers, on the other hand, try to pass it off as a deliberate design decision, boasting in the product description:

While many large dictionary applications pile on complex features and functions, we strove to streamline Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged and make it the fastest and easiest Spanish language dictionary application available.

Yeah. Sure. “Streamline”, you say.

Any information about verb conjugation apparently counts as one of those frivolous “complex functions”. Can’t remember the future subjunctive of some irregular verb? In any other dictionary program, there’s a little icon you can click to see the whole paradigm. Is there one here? Do I really need to answer that for you by now?

Content — et tu, Bluto?

Okay, forget the lack of any Mac’ly flair. Forget the lack of butt-standard features. Forget the least usable interface design for dictionary software in a decade. At least this app has got the entire content of the heaviest, most gigantickest Spanish-English dictionary on the planet, right?

Right?

Right?

Well, almost.

Notice the Spanish example sentences in the first screenshot that have no English translations. Those English translations are there in the paper edition. They’re there even in the handy-dandy 2006 program (for half the price). Why aren’t they here too? I can’t even hallucinate a good excuse for you.

The paper edition and all previous Collins software I’ve seen also have a bunch of extra annotations that tell you, for example, meaning 3 of this word is only used in Mexico or in the Southern Cone, or is a technical term in medicine or horticulture. The meanings shown in the screenshot should be marked with an asterisk to tell you they’re informal (as in: don’t use them in your presidential inaugural address and/or term paper that you’re counting on to pass the course). Or there’s two asterisks to tell you a word is downright slangy, or three asterisks to tell you that the person you say it to had better be a very close friend and also unarmed.

None of that here. I guess those details are also too “complex”, and information about words just gets in the way of a dictionary being the “fastest and easiest”. An app that boasts about being “Complete and Unabridged” in every square millimetre of screen space it can, ironically, feels no need to be a complete and unabridged presentation of the information in the dictionary.

How could it get this bad?

I’ve been blaming “Collins” for the uselessness of this monstrosity and talking as if some executive deliberately decided to take working software and hack out all the features that made it work. While somebody at the HarperCollins corporation is ultimately responsible (in the usual corporate sense of “I screwed up, now triple my bonus”), I gather that Collins’ main problem is that they can’t be bothered developing their own dictionary software and farm that job out to others. They’ve been pretty lucky in the past, but this time their luck ran out.

In the “About” box of my handy-dandy 2006 Mac program, I see a copyright notice by HarperCollins Publishers followed immediately by one from Ultralingua Software. The iPad app is by some guy named Cole Zhu.

Ultralingua is a cool little dictionary software company in Minnesota (which is, after all, the next best thing to Manitoba) that actually hires linguists on their staff.[3] I’ve got one of their Spanish dictionaries on my iPad, too, and while I don’t like it quite as much as Cole Zhu’s, they clearly know what they’re doing.

The new disaster from the AppStore, on the other hand, is made by “Innovative Language Learning”. While Ultralingua’s website lists over a dozen staff members (and the descriptions of their skills are highly relevant to making dictionaries), Innovative Language’s website lists only three “team” members, who seem much more focussed on marketing and raising money than on software design. The most tech-savvy of them has such ninja hacker skills as “uses innovative knowledge management and development practices to enhance the company’s competitive edge.”[4]

I think I can begin to see the problem here.

I still have no idea why the problem was permitted in the first place, or how long it will last. I don’t know if Collins hires one firm at a time to build their dictionary software for them, and each new firm has to throw out its predecessors’ work and start from scratch (in which case, this was a seriously bad choice). Or maybe it’s a franchise deal, where any app developer with enough cash can buy permission to use Collins content in their products (in which case, Collins seriously needs to exercise some quality control for the sake of their own reputation). I have no idea how Collins decides which software gets sold through its own website, or when it gets pulled off.

Most of all, I don’t know how the hell I get Apple to give me my money back.

 


Footnotes:

  • [1]: To check that my memories of the Windows dictionary program were accurate, I just now did fire up my virtual machine and tried running it again. The program claimed my free trial period is over (it is remotely possible that I stopped using it fast enough that I never bothered registering it). But when I type in the registration key printed in the paper dictionary, the program stubbornly insists that it’s invalid. Either: 1) I did enter the key almost a year ago and the program has decided to forget it, or 2) the program is deliberately rejecting a valid, unused key. Either way, I’m being prevented from using a program I have every right to use. Way uncool, Collins. I’m starting to lose faith in you already, and I haven’t even got to the part of the review where I start slamming your wretched choice of business partners.
  • [2]: The same menu apparently does allow you to switch the writing direction between left-to-right and right-to-left. I haven’t tried it, but I can imagine how exceedingly useful that ability would be in translating between English and Spanish.
  • [3]: And linguists are, after all, the most incredibly useful people any company could have on their staff, whether they’re doing anything from pharmaceutical research to making movies to organizing leveraged buy-outs of Swiss multinationals. But most especially if they happen to be making dictionaries. You’d think. (End shameless plug.)
  • [4]: I was actually surprised to see that one of the three team members was Peter Galante. I listened to a few episodes of his JapanesePod101.com a few years ago when I was checking out the state of the art in language-instruction podcasts. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, passionate about the Japanese language, an excellent one-on-one teacher. Since then, I’ve been impressed with his attempts (at least those that have passed through my peripheral vision) to spin his early podcasts into a language teaching network that isn’t sleazy. But, nice guy or not, the fact remains: Did the latest incarnation of his growing empire produce a competent Spanish dictionary app? Not even close. Not even by the standards of 2001.
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Wikigrammar

Yawning jaguar This time next year, if my maniacal plans succeed and if my suffering students don’t garrotte me with a microphone cable in self-defence, you’ll be looking at the most complete reference grammar of Guaraní ever written in English.

Our university has what may be one of the last two-semester field methods courses left in the world, and it’s probably going to be the last time we offer it that way before we have to chop it down to one semester like everybody else. So I was determined not to waste this last opportunity to do some in-depth work on a language, without getting bitten by mosquitos or having to beg the government for funding.

Of course, life couldn’t let me have it easy this year.

I’ve taught a few field methods courses before, usually with about ten students in them, which is just about the limit of what’s pedagogically good. I vaguely remember having 15 students the year we studied Dakota — “vaguely remember” because it was an experience my mind has been trying hard to forget, except for the part where I vowed never to do that again. (The 15 students, not Dakota.)

Through some horrid confluence of circumstances that will need to be thoroughly investigated in order to make sure it never happens again, the enrolment in this year’s course ended up at 25.

Ten was borderline. Fifteen was traumatic. Twenty-five is so far away from the pedagogically ideal size for a field methods course that you can’t see Earth from there. Fortunately, at the very least, the acting dean came through with some extra money to hire more consultants.

So there’s an upside too. Like my elders always used to say: When life gives you lemons and way too many students and lots of time with speakers of a fascinating language, make lemonade and a factory for writing a reference grammar. (I paraphrase.)

So we’ve got very enthusiastic speakers of Guaraní. We’ve got two dozen unbelievably motivated and talented students working on the language. We’ve got eight months. We’ve got ethics board approval for the whole course, so we can actually publish anything that comes out of it. And we will publish. I think I’ve set things up so that that’s practically unavoidable.

In past years when I’ve taught field methods, one of the ways I tried to get the students to pool their work was by having them photocopy the fieldnotes from their individual sessions for each other. It wasn’t very successful. They were always half-hearted about the copying — doing it very late, if ever, and usually only under threat of losing marks. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t need more than one hand to count the sum total of minutes that every student across all the years ever spent reading another student’s fieldnotes.

Well, what was mostly pointless in previous years would have been totally unworkable this time around. Making 25 copies of all their notes would bankrupt most of the students and kill a small forest. And at least one of the students is blind and wouldn’t find a stack of photocopies terribly helpful.

So instead the students will be sharing their notes and descriptions with each other on a website running MediaWiki, the same system that runs Wikipedia.

I’ve divided them into groups of three, since scheduling only eight extra sessions a week with the speakers is less impossible than scheduling 25. Every week or two, each group will get a topic area they have to try to figure out. (“Group 3, figure out as much as you can about imperatives. Group 4, you’ve got yes/no questions…”) The students have to plan the sentences they want to elicit during their sessions. They have to type their fieldnotes immediately after their sessions and upload them to the wiki. They have to upload the resulting description assignment to the wiki as soon as it’s done.

We haven’t got this far in the course yet, but in my fantasies what happens next is: groups read each other’s descriptions, give feedback, maybe offer counterexamples or even better example sentences that they’ve found in their own sessions, ask questions that the original writers never thought of, spurring them to probe even more deeply during their next session. (You know: all the stuff that I’d be doing myself if there weren’t 25 of them.) After a couple of rounds of revisions and follow-up sessions on their grammatical topic, voilà, we’ve got a solid section of a reference grammar. We can copy it over into our growing draft of the reference grammar, link it to all the other relevant sections, and tinker with it for the rest of the year as the need arises.

I’ve tried to design the wiki so that the things I hold as virtues in grammar writing are dead easy to do, while bad things are nigh on impossible. Every point or argument you make should be backed up by data, with tons of example sentences from texts or your fieldnotes, overtly cross-referenced to the texts or your fieldnotes. In the wiki, displaying a sentence as an example in one of your grammatical descriptions is as simple as using the incantation {{eg|191kr003}}, where 191kr003 is the number that the wiki assigned to that sentence when you uploaded your fieldnotes. Everything else is done automatically — from example numbering, to showing the speaker’s initials and a link to the notes, to interlinear glosses that automatically wrap to the next line if they don’t fit inside the margins, with every small-caps grammatical abbreviation linked to its official definition. It’s beautiful, if I do say so myself. On the other hand, doing sleazy things, like inventing a sentence out of thin air and trying to pass it off as data, is as hard as trying to accomplish all of the formatting mentioned above using only Wikipedia markup — good luck with that.

We’re also recording everything — every class, every group session — and those recordings will end up in the descriptions. Students have to create a Praat textgrid for the recording of their session, marking out the intervals where every sentence from their fieldnotes can be found. My computer automatically chops the marked intervals into little sound files, uploads them to the wiki, and links them to the wiki’s record of that sentence. As a result, every single word and sentence used as an example in our final grammar will have a little icon beside it allowing you to hear the original speaker saying it.[1]

It seems kind of a shame to flatten all of that into a stack of paper at the end of the year. I kind of like the idea of the resulting reference grammar becoming a permanent website — suitably sanitized and de-historicized so that you all won’t get to see how bad our transcriptions are during week 3. I’d also like to make something a little more accessible to the actual speakers of the language in Paraguay than a media-intense English website in another continent. I’m not sure what that should be, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be one of those maroon minivan-sized Mouton books that cost more than the average Guaraní speaker earns in a month.

It’s still too early to say how it’s going to work out. A few of the students freaked out at first over all the technical stuff I was expecting them to do. But after their first practice assignment, and halfway through their work after their first real group sessions, I think they’re realizing it’s not impossible. Most of them seem to be getting near the point where the mechanics become second nature and fade into the background, letting them concentrate on the linguistics. At least they haven’t strangled me yet.

So there’s an increasingly good chance we’ll all survive the year with not only our sanity, but also some real research to show for it.[2]

 


  1. I’ve seen a few online grammar sketches that have lots of audio links, but I don’t recall ever seeing one with consistent audio links for every scrap of data. Maybe we’ll be the first.
  2. I wasn’t quite this optimistic a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty exhausted from the summer of hacking PHP, Javascript, CSS, and MediaWiki’s twisted template system,[3] and barely recovered from the month of oxygen deprivation that was my stay at this year’s Linguistics Institute in Colorado. But technical challenges are a lot like recreation to a geek. Far worse were the months of banging my head against a wall trying to solve the bureaucratic problems of getting a wiki running at the university. I’d started pestering Computer Services in May trying to find out how to go about it or even who to ask.[4] I got our Faculty of Arts computer guru involved in the pestering, in the belief that maybe they’d be less likely to ignore him than a mere prof. (Note to self: Computer Services is egalitarian in their ability to ignore.) And here it was, a week after class had already started, we weren’t the slightest bit closer to having a running wiki than we were four months earlier. Amazing Arts computer guru finally slapped Ubuntu onto an old PC, made me the root user on it, and left the beast whirring away permanently on a shelf in his office, plugged into his last free Ethernet port. Not ideal, but it’s working well enough.
  3. Hell, I had to learn PHP to do the bulk of the hacking — and, oh boy, the hideosity of that bastard child of Perl and bad 90s markup was just as agonizing as I thought it was going to be.
  4. I didn’t even need them to do any actual work. I was willing to run the whole MediaWiki system myself out of my home directory on the university’s personal web-page server, as long as they were willing to raise my disk quota to something useful from its current value of approximately 73 bits.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia Commons photo of a yawning jaguar is by Marcus Obal.] Jaguar is one of the words English has borrowed from the Tupi-Guarani family.

Posted in Linguistics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The sentence that ate Colorado

BolanoI took refuge in a Barnes & Noble while waiting for the fire trucks to pull away from in front of the Apple Store, which I was unceremoniously kicked out of (along with everybody else) when they evacuated it, because “We still can’t figure out what that smell is,” not that I could actually smell anything, but a teenager being kicked out beside me said it smelled like burning computers, which I suppose could be evidence that your sense of smell for burning computers, like your hearing for high-frequency sounds, deteriorates as the rest of you deteriorates into senescence, or else that burning computers emit some chemical that I’m genetically incapable of smelling, just like whatever it is that asparagus is supposed to do to your urine, or else that the teenager was just hallucinating, and while I’m in the Barnes & Noble I notice a couple of bookcases of Spanish books and decide that I might as well buy one for practice in reading Spanish, seeing as the firetrucks look like they’re going to be there all night, so I pick out a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which I’d seen the English translation of in the discount racks of the McNally-Robinson’s in Winnipeg and almost bought because the blurb seemed interesting, except it looked so heavy and I was feeling lazy that day, so I didn’t buy it, but now I have a second chance at getting the book, in the original language this time, and I grab that chance, and after finally dropping my computer off for repair at the Apple Store (which didn’t want to take it that night even after the fire trucks drove away because they said they were now closed, except I gave them my patented “what-you-do-next-will-determine-how-many-limbs-you-have-for-the-rest-of-your-life” glare, and they let me leave it), I take the book, all 1125 pages of it, back home and begin to read it, and read some more of it the next day, and the next, but soon I’m beginning to admit to myself that perhaps 2666 wasn’t the wisest choice of a novel for an utter beginner in Spanish-novel-reading, even with the help of the handy-dandy dictionary on my laptop which allows me to look up unfamiliar words in approximately 0.3 seconds, a feature which I use approximately every 0.4 seconds, though I manage to delude myself as I go along that perhaps I’m getting the hang of this Spanish thing, when I reach a sentence that begins halfway down page 33 and still hasn’t finished by the bottom of the page, which doesn’t faze me, since I’ve heard rumours that Spanish novels often have long sentences and at least I don’t have to wait all the way to the end for the verb like in Dutch, and with excitement at my long-sentence-reading accomplishment I flip over the page, eagerly anticipating the climactic finale of this sentence, except the sentence continues all the way to the bottom of page 34, then all the way through page 35, (flip) then all the way through page 36, (my bladder is beginning to protest at this point, but I don’t dare stop because I’d lose my place and have to begin the sentence all over again) then all the way through page 37, (flip) then all the way through page 38, and then finally at long last, halfway down page 39, there’s a period, oh joy of joys, and I breathe a sigh of relief, and as a reward I’m finally treated (after a trip to the bathroom) to the first actual exchange of dialogue in the novel, and I’m thinking that maybe I’m not quite ready for Roberto Bolaño yet, at least until next week, when, through a combination of sleep deprivation and insufficient oxygen, I’ll decide that my Spanish ability has magically increased a hundredfold without the slightest effort on my part and I’ll again take up the book.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching the owls (and why I cheer for vampires)

student sleeping in classAnastasia Salter has a nice post on Profhacker (a Monkey Grammarian favourite) about the challenges of teaching night classes — some nice suggestions for make them easier on both prof and students and links to even more good advice.

Monkey Grammarian is unambiguously a nocturnal primate. I’ve taught a fair number of night classes myself — some have been among my favourite classes ever, some have been among the worst. It is really hard keeping everyone’s attention (and I usually fail), but I doubt that most of the problems mentioned in the post are inherently about night-time, rather than just plain length of class. I suspect the problems would be almost identical if you tried to teach a three-hour block right after lunch.

All in all, I’d have to say the biggest problems have nothing to do with the class or the night, but with dealing with the rest of the institution the next day. Anastasia mentions the challenge of being expected to show up at meetings early the next morning. I can only second that, and third it, and fourth it.

Huge sections of the university seem to honestly believe the entire campus turns into a pumpkin as soon as they rush to their cars at 4:29 and remains frozen in its vegetative state till they deign to reappear the next morning — and they expect you to rearrange your schedule in accord with their delusion. Some have a vague awareness that something or other might go on in the university after they’ve gone home, but they chalk it up to some kind of moral failing on the part of those involved — and they expect you to rearrange your schedule to defer to their superior virtue.

One administrator who was trying to arrange a meeting that I stubbornly refused to attend if it were before 10 a.m. snarled that ten hours was more than enough time for someone to wind down after teaching a three-hour class, travel home from campus, sleep for eight hours, wake up, shower, shave, eat breakfast, and travel back to campus for their meeting. What problem could I possibly have? I said, “In that case you’ll have absolutely no problem holding the meeting at 3 a.m. — ten hours after you leave work.” Said administrator spluttered for a while, then bluntly denied that their claim of what I should be able to do had any bearing on what they should be expected to do.

Granted, it’s only a tiny, tiny minority of day-walkers who are that profoundly clueless that you wonder whether sunlight has a detrimental effect on neurons. But their negative impact on your serenity far outweighs that of the many only mildly clueless who’ve never given much thought to what happens in the world after they go to bed and don’t want to start now. Is it any surprise that during horror movies, I’m usually rooting for the vampires?[1]

At least I now have enough job security that I can stubbornly refuse to do the impossible. The comments section of the ProfHacker post reminds us that most people in academia aren’t so lucky.[2]

Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user rofltosh


  1. This is despite the fact that I am, technically speaking, a zombie, and we two different species of undead historically haven’t gotten along very well.
  2. On the other hand, universities are far from the worst offenders, mostly because our “late” hours are pretty tame compared to what others in the world have to deal with. Ask anybody pulling night-shift in a hospital how much consideration they get from the bureaucrats of the day-shift. Most computer programmers could tell you stories of pulling all-night coding marathons, only to be berated for not sitting perkily at their desk at 8:31 ready to answer Accounting’s nitpicking objections to their latest petty-cash reimbursement form — which is clearly more central to the mission of the company than making sure your product ships on time.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Plus ça change

1288050071 ef146a1986 mLet’s celebrate the astronomical start of summer, which of course we academics are all furiously spending on research, with some century-old déjà-vu on the topic of research — specifically two items published in Science in the summer of 1914.

The first is a transcript of a speech made at the dedication ceremony of some new buildings for the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Lab by one R.S. Woodward, who I’m guessing is this Robert Simpson Woodward — physicist, mathematician, and then-president of the well-endowed Carnegie Institute.

Here’s a quick summary of his speech, in case you don’t feel like going and reading it yourself. Judge for yourself how much has really changed.

  • The world is going to hell in a handbasket.[1]
  • But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and that hope is research!
  • Of course, the public is clueless about what research really is. It’s not inventing things, though we researchers often get forced to invent practical things to justify our existence. But really, “when we consider the great waste of effort and resources entailed by patent litigation, it appears plain that the aggregate of rewards arising from the egoism of the inventor is much less than the aggregate of rewards arising from the altruism of the investigator.”
  • Real research takes experts. We can’t just search through a “drag-net” that has caught all the crackpot theories of “the hosts of amateurs, dilettanti and paradoxers” and try to detect “the relatively microscopic quantity of truth to be found in the vast volume of error”.
  • We can’t leave research entirely to the universities. They can’t seem to decide what the right balance should be between teaching, research, and administration. Maybe they should just stick to teaching.
  • We need independent research institutions, like the one we’re dedicating a building for today (and like that one that, totally coincidentally, I run).
  • Researchers stuck in universities should stop whining about how much money we private institutions have. We don’t have that much. And they should definitely stop trying to get us to share our money with them. Hey, it’s not like I see Harvard sharing its endowment with even worse-off junior colleges. We spend it better anyway.
  • If the universities want more money for research, they should beg rich people for it.
  • The government should do more research too, though those university types are just as jealous of government researchers as they are of us.
  • Unfortunately, the public really doesn’t take scientists seriously. They think we’re just a bunch of male witches. We need to try harder to justify why public policy should take our results into account.
  • We should engage with the business world more. They control our budgets, after all. But the “man of affairs does not understand us, and hence often looks upon us with suspicion or even with contempt.” But we can help them. “It may be easily shown to our satisfaction by a priori reasoning that men of science are no more likely to wreck corporations than financiers, general managers or promoters, but proof by numerous concrete examples must be forthcoming from us.”[2]

That’s the speech. Any of it sound familiar?

A month or so later, Science published a letter by W.E. Castle in response to this speech. It’s this letter that first caught my attention, sharing the page as it does with a one-paragraph note by A.L. Kroeber asserting that Chontal and Seri belong to the Yuman language family (gripping stuff, or, if not gripping, at least concise).

I’m assuming the writer is this William Ernst Castle, geneticist and then holder of a cushy mostly-reasearch job in Harvard’s Bussey Institution — apparently not cushy enough for W.E., since the rant is about how horrible it is to spend so much time teaching, with veiled sniffles that his supposedly research-oriented institution is expected to give occasional tours to unwashed members of the general public. But, unlike most modern academics, he’s not whining about the illiteracy of freshman essays. The onerous work holding back his research career is giving (an unspecified and presumably small number of) research courses to PhD students. The horror!

“The chief energies of many professors entirely competent as investigators are wholly absorbed in laboriously dragging candidates through the academic mill up to the final examination for the doctorate.”

Oh, we wish that that’s how our chief energies were absorbed. But it’s apparently W.E.’s life. It’s hard to imagine which Harvard grad students could have traumatized him so badly that he describes them in terms that would probably get most of us fired today, tenure be damned:

To coach an ambitious but mediocre mind up to the point of making a fair showing for the doctorate is the more exhausting, the more mediocre the candidate. Whatever its educational value, it certainly has little value as research. Yet this makes up a considerable part of the “research” activity of our best universities. Great sums of money are devoted to it in the form of fellowships, scholarships, buildings for laboratories and laboratory equipment for the use of advanced students. A small part of this investment devoted to research by the professors themselves unhampered by a crowd of immature and incompetent students would doubtless be much more effective in advancing knowledge.

While I can’t say this is remotely like my experience with most graduate students, some of the institutional facts still ring a bell today. Universities spend a lot less of their own budgets on research than on grad students — we’re supposed to get external funding for that. Even for the research councils, one of the biggest criteria in judging grant proposals is what kind of training the grant will provide for grad students. On the other hand, there are scattered arbitrary reversals of the philosophy: I have just been told that, although my collective agreement promises me a small expense budget for, among other things, “pursuing research and scholarly work which forms a part of university duties”, it’s absolutely forbidden to use this money to hire a graduate student as an RA. Go figure.

W.E. continues:

The attempt to combine teaching with research has another indirect but evil consequence. The periods which the professor can himself devote to research are intermittent and fragmentary. This affects disadvantageously the topics selected for investigation. They too must be minor and fragmentary. Great fundamental questions requiring long continued and uninterrupted investigation can not be attacked with any hope of success by one who has only an occasional day or a summer vacation to devote to research. The necessity, too, of hunting up thesis subjects for students, small enough in scope to be handled successfully by a beginner in a limited time and yet novel enough to make a showing of originality reacts unfavorably on the professor’s own work. It loses both in breadth and depth. He who in the full maturity of his powers should be doing a day’s work, runs errands for boys, holds their coats and carries water.

Tidy up a few old-fashioned turns of phrase and I could easily imagine everything but the last sentence coming out the mouths of thousands of modern academics. Whether or not every single aspect of university life has remained static in the last century, I think we can agree on at least one timeless truth: Even those in the cushiest jobs complain about how they’re not cushier still.[3]

Random Creative-Commons-licensed photo of Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, by Flickr user slack12.


  1. You, my clueless ahistorical readers from the future, may imagine that I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket because World War I just began two weeks ago, but no! I think it’s going to hell in a handbasket because of corrupt judges and because those pesky women, despite having more rights than they’ve ever had in the history of the universe, are demanding so much more that they’re literally endangering people’s lives! And because, despite 1914 having the greatest welfare system ever, “there are yet those who would seek to divide the earnings and the savings of the industrious and the thrifty with the shiftless and the improvident.” And, of course, because of out-of-control military spending.

    [Monkey Grammarian will grant that the reasons for the world going to hell may mutate painfully slowly, but it’s clear that the world has been going to hell at a constant rate since at least the invention of handbaskets in the Paleolithic. And for just as long it’s also been obligatory to begin every speech at a public ceremony with a complaint thereon.]

  2. Recent experience would suggest that we “men of science” are in fact exactly as likely to wreck corporations as financiers, general managers, and promoters are — i.e., close to 100%.  For entertaining reading (for certain values of “entertaining”), see this book. And as much we loathe those business fads that regularly sweep through universities five years late, forcing us to deal with pointy-haired bosses, making our lives miserable, and actively damaging our mission (more fun reading), those fads don’t come only from consultants/charlatans trying to make a quick buck before everyone realizes they’re full of shit — a good chunk of the fads were spawned by the very universities they crawl back to to die.

  3. There’s a creepier implication of this rant, assuming this is the same W.E. Castle who dabbled in eugenics. If this is his unashamed public opinion of Harvard PhDs, is this really a guy you’d have wanted passing judgment on the intellectual capacity of everybody else in the world?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What I’m working on these days

one huge stack of booksWhen I was at the MOT workshop in honour of Glyne Piggott this month, people would occasionally ask me, “So what are you working on these days?”

Now, lacking the neurotypical skill of telling when people really want to know the answer and when they’re just being polite, I usually just shrug off that question — though a couple of times I’ve started giving an answer which, after the first thirty seconds, probably bored the unfortunate asker into forgetting their own name.

So just in case anybody really is interested, here’s a description of what I’m working on lately. Now when anybody asks me, I can give my usual vague answer and tell them to read my blog for more details. Most people can continue to smile politely and get on with their lives. The tiny fraction of a percent who really want to know — well, you’re reading this now. I apologize in advance for boring you to the point where you forget your own name.

So what am I working on these days?

There’s the usual batch of small projects that might or might not turn into journal articles some day. There’s the pilot project for the humungous American Sign Language corpus project that I’m working on with Erin Wilkinson and Terry Janzen.

But most of my time is going to The Book…

The Book is a horrid, horrid creature who asked to stay over in my head one weekend and neglected to ever move back out. It leaves its laundry on the floor and dishes in the sink. And it’s sprouting new volumes so fast that I suspect it’s either mastered parthenogenesis or else it’s been sneaking out of my skull at night and consorting with other books, completely heedless of my lectures to it about the importance of protection.

It all started during the five-year soul-sucking prison sentence that was my term as department head. That’s honestly as positive as I can make the experience sound. Most days were spent on earth-shatteringly vital tasks. Like: “Justify why your staff criminally spent the money in that budget line buying a fax machine when it was clearly[1] intended to be spent on sending individual faxes.” Or “Drop everything you’re doing and immediately count how many cubic metres of confidential documents your department keeps.” Or “Listen to this long, rambling speech by the director of human resources justifying why his computer system still doesn’t work this year, followed by a helpful outline of the extra work that’s going to mean for you.”

Every erg of creative energy that wasn’t annihilated by that black hole went into the teaching I still did. In sum, that was five years when the amount of writing I managed to get done was (measured to within any arbitrary precision): zero. The number of projects I managed to successfully plan was: zero. The amount of field work I got done was: pretty damn close to zero.

While I couldn’t do most of the things I actually liked about my job, what I could still do was read — not a lot, but some. About an article a day. So, since I clearly wasn’t about to accomplish anything else remotely resembling research, I resolved to do just that: read one article a day, every day, no matter what.

I’d seldom be able to fit into my head all the intricate argumentation in a typical formal phonology or syntax paper before my mental gas-tank hit empty, so I ended up reading a lot of articles in phonetics, psycholinguistics, child development, and communication disorders — areas I’d wanted to get more depth in for a long time but had never got around to.

Some days I’d only manage one of the four-pagers in Psychological Science or in the ICPhS proceedings. Usually it would be closer to 10 or 15 pages, like a typical article in JASA, Journal of Phonetics, or Journal of Memory and Language, or a chapter from one of the Laboratory Phonology books. Occasionally I’d have the time to squeeze in something far more substantial, like some gigantic two-column, 50-page review article or somebody’s dissertation — more often I’d have to break the longer things over several days (something I could never do for formal phonology or syntax), but that didn’t absolve me of my self-imposed duty to read another complete article on each of those days. As a matter of discipline (something I’ve never been all that big on), I had to read that article every day, even if it meant sneaking in half-page letter to Science between Christmas brunch and Christmas dinner.

Before I knew it, I’d read over a thousand articles. Whew.

Scarier still, they were starting to make a creepy sort of sense. Even though I couldn’t find three papers in a row that actually agreed on something, and though several of the writers clearly saw themselves as locked in to-the-death grudge-matches with each other, there were actually coherent themes emerging (at least in my fevered mind), odd connections popping up between this paper on dialect differences in perceptual phonetics and that paper on three-year-olds learning syllable structure and that other paper over there on the nonword repetition skills of dyslexic adults.

So that’s how the idea for The Book began — quite possibly the worst idea ever in the entire history of me.

Partway through the reading marathon, I’d begun to be able to tell the difference between good work and dreck, to figure out the point of an article, how exactly it fits into a long chain of debate between shifting coalitions of co-authors spanning decades and dozens of papers.

A tiny part of me got a little resentful: “I shouldn’t have had to wade through that much dreck to get to the point where I am now.”[2] I started wishing there’d been a good introductory book that would have let me skip over the first couple of hundred papers or so. Which is a dangerous wish for me, because whenever I have a wish like it, some other thoroughly evil part of my brain starts whispering, ever so reasonably, “Well, why don’t you write it yourself?” And it just nags and nags and nags, day and night, whispering and nagging and whispering and nagging, till it’s a foregone conclusion that I will write the damned thing.[3]

So The Book is about all the cool findings from the disciplines on the border of phonology that I think phonologists should know about and take into account when dreaming up their theories. It’ll hopefully be the book I wish had existed when I started.

Here’s the outline I’ve got so far.[4]

  • memory: What kinds of stuff do people have to remember in order to learn and use the phonological system of their language? This chapter will cover both evidence for exemplars and evidence for abstract phonological categories independent of exemplars.

  • articulation: In order to speak or to sign, you have to coordinate lots of different pieces of your anatomy — moving them all at just the right time relative to each other. How do speakers and signers coordinate all that? And how do they learn to coordinate it all?

    (Actually, you know what? I’m going to have to say “speakers and signers” really often, and say “listeners and, uh, people who see signs and have to understand what the signer meant” really often. And I’m lazy. And besides it sucks that there really isn’t good equivalent equivalent to the word “listener” for sign-language addressees. So, from now on, whenever I say “speaker” or “listener”, just assume that I’m talking about their sign-language analogues too. In writing The Book, I’m trying to take seriously the idea that a theory of phonology that can only explain spoken languages has done, at most, only half its job.)

  • perceptual categories: How do listeners go from hearing a bunch of sound waves to having decided, “Oh, that’s a [p] sound!” How do they learn to do that? In fact, how do they learn which perceptual categories are in their language in the first place?

  • perceptual categories, part deux: In order to make the decision “Oh, that’s a [p] sound rather than a [b] sound,” a listener can’t just pay attention to a single property of the sound waves. Rather, they have to integrate and juggle lots of different acoustic properties, some of them more reliable, some of them less, some of them only useful if some other property is also there — and also pay attention to visual input. How do they do that? How do they learn to do that?

    (Actually, you know what? I’m going to be saying “And how do they learn to do that?” so often that you might as well just assume that I’ve added that sentence to the end of every chapter description from now on.)

  • word recognition: How do listeners go from sound waves to deciding “Oh, that’s the word pear” or “Oh, that’s the word bear”? How can those decisions go back and make listeners go back and revise earlier decisions about whether they heard a [p] or a [b]? What kind of information do they have to pay attention, and when do they pay attention to it? What kind of phonological knowledge do they need inside their heads to make those decisions? And how do they learn it? (Sorry, I promised I’d quit saying that.)

  • word production: Like word recognition in reverse. How do speakers go from an idea (“I want to talk about that furry meowing thing”) to having prepared the motor plan that they need for pronouncing the word cat. This chapter will include some weird findings, like the relationship between your planning system for producing words and your ability to remember lists of things for short periods of time and your ability to learn new words and foreign languages, and the stranger relationship between moving your arms around and planning words — even if you’re speaking and not signing.

Everything up to here forms a nice coherent whole — and by “nice coherent whole” I mean nothing more than that it’s mostly already written. (Except for the last chapter, and a couple of other sections, and a small country’s worth of footnotes, and a large country’s worth of proofreading and fact-checking and revisions, and… well, mostly.) So this marks a logical place for The Book to pause and call it a day, or at least to call it “Volume 1”.

But wait! There’s more! Order now and you can eventually get — with no money down and no payments for the next four years — a whole additional volume! Or two! They don’t actually exist yet (which is why you don’t have to pay for them yet), but that’s never stopped anything from ruining my life. The fantasized topics in the next cancerous excrescences of The Book are as follows:

  • computer modelling: How do psycholinguists and computer geeks make sure that the theoretical models they come up with actually make the predictions about human behaviour that their creators think they make? This chapter will be an overview of some of the most common techniques being used to model human language use and learning, including (but most definitely not limited to) the connectionist models so dreaded by formal phonologists who’ve heard of it. Most of the research covered in the following chapters makes heavy use of computer modelling, so this intro has to be up front.

  • morphology: How do speakers and listeners cope words with more than one piece to them? Do they bother learning cats as a new word, or do they always just break it down into the cat and -s pieces that they already know — and how can we tell? How does morphology influence phonology and vice versa?

  • reading: For a century, linguists have been proclaiming to everybody willing to listen (mostly just our intro students) that we don’t give a damn about written language, that it’s irrelevant, that everybody already knows everything interesting there is to know about the phonology of their language before they get to kindergarten and that’s the knowledge we’re interested in explaining — not the artificial writing nonsense that comes later.

    A century ago, this was actually a necessary political stand for our newborn discipline to take, way back when we had to defend the relevance of our subject matter against arrogant Victorian prigs who assumed only fine art and high literature was worth studying. (Like, what could a bunch of children, ignorant savages, and working-class peons possibly teach us about what it means to be human anyway?) Okay, we won that battle (inside universities anyway). Now it’s time to admit that our century-old slogans aren’t actually completely entirely 100%, um… true. Turns out that writing can matter. Learning to read and write an alphabet profoundly rewires a person’s brain in ways that have only become clear in the last couple of decades, ways that affect the speaker’s phonology even when they’re just listening and nowhere near a printed word.

    Even more ominous, turns out that many of our assumptions about how phonology works aren’t universal facts about humans, just facts about the subset of humans who read an alphabet. In short, we’ve been unconsciously suffering from exactly the privileging of written language that we’ve loud and long proclaimed we’re opposed to. Oops.

    Hmm, that was a long chapter description. Aren’t you glad I stopped saying “And how do they learn all that”?

  • variation: the meeting of phonology and sociolinguistics, with some historical linguistics thrown in. How do phonologies differ between dialects? How do speakers use phonological choices to communicate social ideas — “I’m like you”, “I’m not like you”, “I’m nothing at all like my parents.” How do listeners cope with that hodge-podge? How do these “non-linguistic” things stick their fingers into the gears and mess around with how the “linguistic” processes from the last several chapters do their job? How can all this result in languages changing through time?

  • bilingualism and second-language phonology. The last few chapter descriptions have exhausted me — I’ll just leave it at that.

  • disorders: Phonologies don’t always work. How can it break down and what does that tell us about the normal system? What exactly is different about the processing systems we’ve talked about so far in people with aphasia, dyslexia, apraxia of speech, stuttering, and so on?

  • neural and genetic bases: What do we know about where and how the brain does all the previously discussed work? What do we know [short answer: not much] about the genetics that makes it possible?

  • phonological constituents: Finally, we can start getting back to the kinds of things phonologists have usually thought to be their jobs. Stuff like syllables, phonemes, metrical feet, features, segments, moras, onsets, phrases, morpheme boundaries — the whole menagerie. The last big part of the book will be a survey of the phonetic and psycholinguistic evidence relating to the existence of each traditional constituent and the role it plays in normal processing.

I’m still completely undecided about how I’m going to go about getting The Book out there and into your hands, both of my eagerly waiting readers.

I’m sorely tempted to just dump the PDF file on the internet when it’s done, letting it float free into the hands of friends, enemies, impoverished grad students, Google, and shady websites that will offer to sell pirated copies to the morally and intellectually challenged for “way less than retail”. The PDF file will have lots of cool features that a paper book wouldn’t — colour, hyperlinks for cross-references and citations, as many pages as I want (or rather, as many pages as The Book insists on sprouting). I’ve already got tenure, so the extra cred I’d get from a big name publisher would have a minuscule effect on my life.

On the other hand, I’m still Luddite enough and vain enough to appreciate a nice, solid tome with my name on the spine.[5] Okay, honestly what I really like about a nice, solid tome is that it’s immutable — it will be physically impossible for me to waste the rest of my life fiddling with commas and releasing a new version every two weeks.

Maybe it’s possible to get the best of both worlds. Some publishers are fine with free PDFs floating around in parallel to the printed book. Maybe I can get a deal like what David MacKay got from Cambridge for Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms. But all those worries are months, years, decades in the future. Right now I have a small country’s worth of footnotes to finish.

So that’s what I’m working on these days. Wishing you hadn’t asked about now?


  1.    “clearly” = mentioned in passing near the end of a long memo on a completely different topic sent to the wrong person halfway through the budget year.

  2.    I’m sure Rob Hagiwara and a couple of other innocent bystanders would add: “I shouldn’t have had to waste so much time listening to Kevin rant dementedly about all the dreck he was reading.” So let this be a warning to all academics: Bad writing doesn’t just hurt the reader. Second-hand effects can ripple out through the entire society, damaging all they touch, and ultimately leading to the fall of western civilization.

  3.    I can often trick these thoughts into going away by pleading other work: “Aw, I’m sorry, best-recruitment-brochure-ever-for-the-field-of-linguistics, I’d love to write you. Honest I would. Unfortunately I’ve got this conference paper that needs to be finished right now. But let’s do lunch some day.” But The Evil Book knew damn well I wasn’t writing anything else (for reasons I’ve already whined about) and it called my bluff. “Well, of course you can’t write me now, Kevin. But one day your prison sentence will be over and you’ll go on sabbatical, and when that day happens, I’ll be waiting for you. Mwa-ha-ha!”

  4.    Keen-minded victims of the past few years of my phonological theory class might notice eerie resemblances between this chapter outline and the course syllabus. All I can say is: I’m sorry, guinea-pigs.

  5.    It’s comforting to think that there’ll be literally dozens of copies of The Book sitting on library shelves spanning the globe, and that when the zombie apocalypse comes, my work will live on and contribute to the survival of the last remaining humans, who will be able to burn it for warmth like they could never burn dozens of copies of my immortal memo on the budget line for faxes.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Karolina Lubryczynska (karolajnat)]

Posted in Linguistics | Tagged , | 1 Comment